The 20 Best Television Characters of 2013

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It’s difficult to describe what makes a television character “great,” and the problem is compounded by the fact that so many actors manage it in so many different ways. Loosely speaking, though, we can say that what captivates us are the characters who feel utterly believable while floating in the dramatic ether. We want them to be real, but we also want them to be gloriously untethered to reality. It’s not an easy feat, but the 20 actors below combined substance with drama to create memorable, exciting characters in 2013. These are the best of the best.

20. Francis Underwood
Actor:   Kevin Spacey  
Show: House of Cards (Netflix)

There were times when House of Cards was so sinister that it became melodramatic, and the season two trailer shows no signs that the Netflix drama will temper itself in 2014. But even as the ominous drums and screeching strings and murky sets drew us in to a macabre world, Kevin Spacey was the man who kept it fun. As Underwood, his insinuating southern accent weaved its sinuous way into our heads; he was the winking serpent who was born for the outlandish halls of power in this hyperbolic version of D.C., and it’s hard to imagine a more provocative tour guide. —Shane Ryan


19. Lucille Bluth
Actor: Jessica Walter
Show: Arrested Development (Netflix)

Normally, it would be almost impossible to pinpoint a “best” Arrested Development character—GOB and Tobias might be the laugh-out-loud funniest, but the subtleties in literally ever other major character make for legitimate comedic brilliance—but in Season Four, when the show at times felt more like an elaborate puzzle disguised as a comedy and less like the hilarious ancestor from its Fox days, the show needed characters who could be grounded and funny at the same time. Nobody pulled that off like Jessica Walter as Lucille Bluth, the perfect rich, snobby matriarch whose selfish intentions guide the plot, and who is always just a little more clever and a little less drunk than everyone thinks. —SR


18. Archer
Actor:   H. Jon Benjamin  
Show: Archer (FX)

Don’t worry—he’s still a vain, drunk womanizer, and it’s still funny as hell. But it’s even funnier now that we’ve caught a glimpse of his exposed flank (part of which is probably autistic, too). —Scott Wold

By the end of 2013, Archer’s eponymous “deadliest secret agent” (whose initial main comedic function lay in constantly undercutting that “deadly” reputation through his relentless narcissism, boozing and whoring) has shown evidence that the repeated puncturing of his massive ego just may have left some scars. Mommy issues a given, Archer has survived cancer and a broken heart—this past year, he actually put another human being’s life ahead of his own.


17. Detective John Luther
Actor:   Idris Elba  
Show: Luther (BBC One, BBC America)

Damaged, brooding, and unconventional, Elba’s Luther is a classic of the detective genre. He nails all the main beats as the tempest-tossed cop burdened by layers of personal tragedy who nevertheless always gets his man, and he exceeds the trope by virtue of his alternating states of gentle grace and explosive rage. This is a character you trust, but who keeps you on edge anyway; the big man shambles along with an enigmatic essence, and you never know when he’ll unleash a brilliant insight to crack a case, or dangle a reluctant witness over a balcony for the same purpose. —SR


16. The Governor
Actor: David Morrissey
Show: The Walking Dead (AMC)

For all its popularity, it’s hard to point to a single character on The Walking Dead and say, “Here’s an example of true excellence.” Rick is monotonous, Michonne barely stops grimacing long enough to let us in, Hershel verges on parody as a good ol’ Southern doc, and Daryl is too much of a badass to ever let us see inside his soul. The exception, oddly enough, is the bad guy. David Morrissey was the post-apocalyptic embodiment of evil, and yet even when the writing was decidedly one-track, he managed to convey a bruised kind of humanity. In the first half of Season Four, he was single-handedly responsible for the show’s best episode of all time (read Josh Jackson and I raving about “Live Bait” here), and although the character couldn’t sustain the flash of goodness we saw as he returned from a state of near-death, Morrissey’s brief resurrection was the kind of insightful, layered performance you don’t usually see in a show where zombies rule. —SR


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